Time to change the lens

And speak about perspective, not values

Updated - February 25, 2017 05:49 pm IST

Published - February 25, 2017 04:13 pm IST

What happens when the universe is presented to the individual at the click of a mouse?

What happens when the universe is presented to the individual at the click of a mouse?

We are living in the most interesting times. But as the Chinese say (and it’s time we started to take all things Chinese seriously), interesting times are damned times—they are times of confusion accompanied by a loss of perspective. And loss of perspective is a disastrous thing. Not only do we do things in wrong ways but more importantly we have no way of finding worth in our lives. Perspective makes us value our own work as singular, allows us to differentiate our worldview from homogeneous social and cultural values, and makes doing things worthwhile. That the contemporary moment in India and the world over is interesting precisely because there is a loss of perspective is all too clear. Open any website, magazine or book trying to make sense of the contemporary and a slew of visions of gloom and doom pour out: impending environmental disasters, political calamities, media distraction and economic upheavals. Our superstar critical pundits are unanimous about ‘the difficult times’ we live in. There is much hand-wringing about how bad the situation is. If solutions are advanced, they are weak ones—prudence, compassion, strong governance or better civic education. The standard liberal-humanist homilies are paraded: what we need are stronger value systems.

Answers too glib?

Interestingly, it seems the crisis might precisely be that of speaking about values instead of perspective. The crisis of our times is that it lies at a level of experience more fundamental than values—that of perspective. Speaking about values instead of perspective is to have the wrong perspective on things. And if current formulae for better values for our tomorrows are failing unerringly, it is because the problem is being articulated conveniently at the glib level of values without thinking through what perspective needs to underlie value thought.

One basic place where things are going very wrong is in our inability to see the absolute illegitimacy of an older symbolic order—paternalistic, humanist, familial, monumental and, above all, adult, in the new world in the making. In the latter, things are going small, young, anarchic, non-linear, omnisexual and individuated instead. Political discourses of yore don’t reach out to the people or the young. The world of big politics, national wars, revolutions is definitely over. Nor does culture or science make headlines any more. The familial and the communal are eroded with every passing day, as are older logics of romance, love and sex. In short, the ‘big’ values of yore make no sense to the young in these times.

This does not mean that values don’t exist. The reality might be that a proliferation of value creation is happening today and at such intense frequencies that old-hat terms like the market cannot do justice to it. At another level, the cultural practices of the new are something the older value order cannot understand or legitimise as being historically worthy. It’s possible we are looking down on cultural values in the making in contemporary media as being juvenile, frivolous precisely because they do not fit our fantasies of value as defined by big ideas of nations, peoples, cultures or religions. And yet, it is possible that small lives in a Big Data media experience (a convergence of all data about the universe into a single analytical program) might be happening in such ways that an individual is now able to command a sense of being a world cosmic person. Small groups of individuals might harness more creative energy and potential than nations. More significantly, the cultural anarchy we see in the new might precisely be the function of the small being charged with handling the cosmic at unprecedented scales of information. Where we seem to be going wrong is precisely in matters of perspective in the most literal sense—we are applying the big lens of older categories to smaller forms of worth and value while applying the small lens of an older, restricted understanding of the individual to things of vast magnitude.

In short, the unconscious moralism about what/ who is worth the big, the significant is a huge stumbling block to taking things forward. The conundrum of our times seems to this: What happens when the universe is presented to the individual at the click of a mouse? Today’s media experience of the virtual that potentially encompasses direct material experience of every bit of the cosmos by every individual—matter, animals, plants and planets—is far beyond what was conventionally considered the domain of human experience. It would be frivolous on our part to think such experiences will lead to people imagining proportionately puny entities such as nation, market, community or world.

To speak of a return to older value systems would be all too convenient when faced with the challenge of a seismic perspective shift that the new world order demands of us. The convenience becomes all the more dangerous when we realise that such a shift in perspective demands a substantial dismantling of the older value order and that such a dismantling would entail huge costs and inconvenience. But dismantle the older order we must if we are to get out of the bad situation we have dug ourselves into. Outside of that, all talk is laziness and all concern distracted lip service.

Kaushik Bhaumik is Associate Professor in Cinema Studies at JNU and when he is not ordering food on various apps, he is writing about cinema and art.

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